Steven Spielberg’s new film “The Post” looks at one important moment in the American journalism history, which is all the more relevant at present for good reasons. While it is often a little too blatant in delivering its timely social message, the movie still works well as a vivid, compelling drama powerfully reminding us of the democratic value of free press, and it surely helps that it is firmly anchored by its top-notch direction and stellar performances to admire.
The movie is mainly about how the Pentagon Papers, famous classified documents regarding the 32-year involvement of the US government in the Vietnam War, was fully reported by the Washington Post in 1971, and the story begins with how these documents came to be leaked by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) at that time. In 1966, Ellsberg came to Vietnam as a US State Department military analyst, and it did not take much time for him to see how bad the situation was for US. He told this frankly to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), but McNamara did not tell anything about this when he was in front of reporters later.
Ellsberg was certainly disillusioned by this, and that is why he decides to do something five years later. While working for a civilian military contractor named the RAND Corporation, he surreptitiously photocopies the Pentagon Papers, and then he gives a small part of these documents to the reporters of the New York Times, who surely know that they must be really careful about this important but very sensitive news material.
Around that time, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the executive editor of the Washington Post, senses that something big is about to come from the New York Times, but then the New York Times publishes an article on Ellsberg’s documents, which shocks the whole nation as exposing how the US government has lied to its people about the Vietnam War for many years. Bradley is quite pissed about not getting that scoop first, but he also becomes more determined to beat the New York Times, so he demands his reporters to find the secret source of the New York Times as soon as possible.
Eventually, one of his reporters, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), discovers that Ellsberg is the one who leaked the documents, and he soon approaches to Ellsberg, who is ready with the rest of his photocopied classified documents. As Bradlee, Bagdikian, and other journalists of the Washington Post look into these documents, it becomes very clear to everyone that they get something quite bigger than what was already reported by the New York Times, and they also see that they and their newspaper are going to be in a serious legal trouble. Right after the New York Times published its article on the Pentagon Papers, President Richard Nixon and his administration swiftly retaliate with legal measures against the New York Times, and the same thing will definitely happen to the Washington Post once they publish their article.
In the end, everything depends on the decision to be made by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who recently became the publisher of the Washington Post after her husband’s unfortunate death. While being the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, she finds herself getting constantly underestimated by men surrounding her, and that often makes her feel uncertain about whether she can do her job well while her newspaper goes through a crucial financial circumstance.
As gradually realizing how important her newspaper’s article on the Pentagon Papers is, Graham seeks advices from others around her. Almost everyone thinks they should not publish the article considering the enormous legal risk from it, but Graham eventually decides to stick to their journalistic principles and their constitutional right of free press, and she fully trusts her judgement even when she is given a chance to step back from that.
As steadily accumulating its narrative momentum, the movie constantly engages us through its efficient storytelling and considerable verisimilitude. The screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer falters at times whenever it has its characters push its message directly to us, but it did a mostly competent job of juggling numerous details and characters in the story, and Spielberg and his crew smoothly present them on the screen while also effectively establishing the authentic atmosphere of the American newspaper business in the 1970s, which will instantly remind you of “All the President’s Men” (1976) with those frequent typewriter sounds.
The performers in the movie are impeccable to say the least. Meryl Streep, who recently garnered her 21th Oscar nomination for this film, is marvelous as filling her character with subtle human nuances to appreciate, and I particularly like how she effortlessly conveys to us her character’s thoughts and feelings during several key scenes in the film. While his performance is automatically compared to Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning turn in “All the President’s Men”. Tom Hanks successfully embodies his character’s integrity and dignity as finding his own things to play, and he and Streep are always interesting to watch whenever they are together on the screen.
Streep and Hanks are surrounded by an impressive array of talented performers. Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all solid in their respective supporting roles, and the result is one of the best movie ensemble performances in 2017.
I must point out that “The Post”, which was recently nominated for Best Picture Oscar, is rather modest compared to what we may expect from the combination of Streep, Hanks, and Spielberg, but it is still a very good work on the whole, and it will be interesting to observe how it will be remembered after several years. Will we be still stuck in the ongoing era of ‘fake news’ even at that point? Or, will our world get better with more courageous and principled journalism as the movie and its makers sincerely hope? Time will tell.